• Friday, November 27, 2015
  • A program of IPS Inter Press Service supported by the Dutch MDG3 Fund

    RIGHTS-LAOS: Lapses with Labour – Part 2


    Melody Kemp*

    VIENTIANE, Nov 26 (IPS) – “Most workers have limited knowledge, ultimately you don’t know how many hidden killers are in your workplace. The boss knows, but he won’t tell you,” Wang Fengping, an engineer who was once employed by Hong Kong-based Gold Peak batteries at their factory in Guondong, China. 

    In 2008, Wang was unable to walk. Her kidneys had failed and she was dependent on dialysis. According to medical opinion she was unlikely to make old age. 

    She and 400 other women had been exposed to cadmium and possibly nickel. Their symptoms were consistent with cadmium poisoning. Falling hair, severe body pains, breathing difficulties and kidney failure. The case was reported globally, which didn’t stop Gold Peak’s CEO being appointed to the Hong Kong Executive Council. 

    There is suspicion that nickel cadmium batteries could be being manufactured in Oudomxai in Lao’s north, where the majority female labour force could be similarly affected, but no one really knows. 

    Workplace InjuriesLoc showed me the stump where her hand used to be. It still looked raw and I flinched despite myself. She was leaving to go back to her village in the north of Laos.  

    “I was on the night shift and was tired. The supervisor had not let me go to the toilet so I was not concentrating, and the press grabbed my hand. I could not believe it. I screamed and passed out. They told me that in another country they could have done lots to save my hand but … ( at this point her face crumpled) (this) … is Laos. We don’t have such things.” 

    Process work is often thought of as fit for women. Simple repetitive work that requires robot like actions. Boring and socially isolating, tiring in its relentless monotony, hypnotising in its speed, it is far from the multi-tasking most women take for granted in the home and community. 

    “What can I do?” Loc continued. “I can weave but that needs two hands. I can help in the fields but that needs two hands. I feel very depressed about the future. I just bought a motorbike to be independent, but even if I have a fake hand, it’s not easy to control brakes. I was the earner for my family. Who wants a women with one hand?” 

    She had not begun to tackle the issue of workers compensation, which for many women is another difficult road to walk even while they are simply getting used to being irrevocably changed.

    The expertise does not exist to monitor the factory, nor to test the workers. Exposure limits, and the protocols needed to achieve them, are similarly absent. Detailed sex disaggregated accident or exposure reporting does not occur. There is little outside the capital a worker can do if dismissed for illness. All that is known is that some women have complained of headaches and skin rashes. 

    Laos like many countries is prey to development imperatives that put investment before safeguards. The New Economic Mechanism of 1986 opened the nation to foreign investment, a consumer economy and the trappings of modernisation, particularly in the cities. 

    Tuk has been working at a salon and nail bar in central Vientiane for two years. “I sometimes feel really sick, and I don’t eat much.” It may be due to the solvents that she uses in a badly ventilated space. The nail glue contained methyl methacrylate, banned in many western nations for its effects on the liver, skin and lungs. Tuk showed me her hands, which she described as “itchy and sore.” 

    The piles of skin whitening products behind her all contained hydroquinone, which is known to work by stopping the body making melanin (the brown pigment in skin). Melanin protects the skin from cancer, and the chemical used to suppress it is known to cause kidney and liver damage. It’s bad for the customer, but worse for the beautician who uses it many times each day. The real cost of white. 

    “Are they really dangerous?” Tuk asked, her hand sweeping the piles of products. I could tell her that beauty salons in the west are required to check seven pages of safety points, but would that change anything? There is no culture of safety in Laos as there has not been any need for one in the past. 

    As Dr Doming Paek of the University of Seoul fatalistically told delegates at a meeting of Asian labour advocates in Phnom Penh in September, each nation has to learn its own way. It’s a social not a technical process. 

    Groups with a special interest in the effects of work on women have been proliferating in Asia, but have yet to take root in Laos. 

    The major agency for women’s affairs, the Lao Women’s Union (LWU), made no mention of workplace health and safety at their annual meeting to review and evaluate their work last week, nor is it a mainstream development topic. 

    “I wanted to work in a factory,” said Nah, “but the wage is not what I expected. I sometimes earn less than a dollar per day …. and I work 10 hours. All I do is iron jeans. It’s tiring and hot and there is a lot of steam. I have a lot of (vaginal) infections. My back hurts, particularly each month (during menstruation). 

    “The floor is cement and they do not let us sit down. I have no work contract. I did not want one as I want to be able to leave to go home for harvesting and planting. That means that they can sack me at any time if the orders do not come in from overseas.” 

    Lack of job security, low-waged, routinised and boring has characterised women’s work. Nah’s work predisposes her to gynaecological problems, the damp and heat enabling thrush to thrive. But she is possibly enumerated as a development success, moving from rural poverty into urban wage slavery. 

    While women in Laos enjoy social and labour force participation and influence rarely found in other nations, this may count against their long term health in the absence of knowledge and the ability to use it through the instruments of independent labour advocacy. Their strength came from lowland Lao social structures which supported the matrilineal society. Industrialisation is weakening those social bonds, women’s status and damaging women’s health. There is insufficient countervailing force. 

    The local director of the Australian labour oriented NGO APHEDA conceded that most Lao women workers are still unaware of their rights in regards to compensation and health and safety. 

    So what happens to them if they have an accident? “They go back to the village so their families can take care of them,” he said. And does having an accident affect their chances of being married? “Of course,” he replied ruefully. 

    * All names used are pseudonyms to protect the women interviewed. 

    This is the second part of a series on gender and disability in Laos ahead of the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Laos accepted the international treaty in August 1981. (END/2009

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